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Zooey Deschanel, Parker Posey, and the Problem of Defining 'Indie'

Parker Posey’s guest appearance on the season premiere of “New Girl”—announced earlier this week—will mark the first time that Posey, “indie queen” of the ’90s, has shared a screen with Zooey Deschanel, indie queen of the millennial set. Time magazine gave Posey the title in 1997, after she starred in a string of low-budget independent films such as Party Girl and Dazed and Confused. And Deschanel, in the past few years, has been similarly anointed by outlets from New York magazine’s Vulture blog to NPR.

What makes an indie queen? In Posey’s case, of course, the epithet referred simply to the thirty or so indie films she did from the mid- to late-’90s. Her roles have been diverse and memorably weird. There was a gum-smacking Dairy Queen employee in the Christopher Guest mockumentary Waiting for Guffman, a yuppie dog owner in Best in Show, and a crazed Jackie O. wannabe in The House of Yes. Posey tends to play women on the edge, always with a current of sad self-awareness. There is a languor to her delivery that contrasts with something frantic and jumping in the eyes—a kind of intensity buried in valley-girl distractedness.

Deschanel’s style could hardly be more different. Where Posey is arch and knowing, Deschanel is all soft guilelessness. Her rise has coincided with the rise of a new category of onscreen heroine: the “manic pixie dream girl,” first identified by film critic Nathan Rabin in his 2007 review of Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown. This girl, Rabin wrote, “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Deschanel is often pointed to as the clearest embodiment of this type. In 500 Days of Summer, poor Tom (Joseph Gordon Levitt) projects all his novelistic fantasies about life and love onto her airy, bohemian head. And as the romantic interest to Jim Carrey’s Yes Man in 2008, Deschanel’s insights included: “The world’s a playground—somewhere along the way everyone forgets it.”

As the ’90s came to a close and “independent film” became less an industry than a cultural signifier, the criteria for indie darling loosened from a concrete category into something more atmospheric. In Deschanel’s case, it is not about the sort of films she stars in—she has played far more romantic leads in mainstream movies than Posey ever did—but about her air of dreamy hipsterdom, the ukulele-strumming and the twee sundresses. For her part, Posey has followed up her ’90s indie reign with a failed 2008 sitcom as well as several short-term television roles: a high-strung Barney’s employee on “Will & Grace,” Eli Gold’s ambitious and abrasive ex on “The Good Wife,” Leslie Knope’s passive-aggressive rival on “Parks and Recreation.” Passive aggression may be Posey’s best comedic mode. She is a master at packing opposite emotions into a single facial expression.

But while all her characters buzz with a manic, conflicted energy, Posey has never been a manic pixie dream girl. Indeed, her brilliant appearance on “Louie” last month seemed like a retort to Deschanel’s brand of heroine, that otherworldly creature floating between used bookstores and alighting on the occasional café to read some Dorian Gray. As Sady Doyle pointed out several days ago in In These Times, Parker Posey’s role on “Louie” raises the question: “What if the Manic Pixie Dream Girl were actually, you know, manic? As in, she had bipolar disorder?” Posey’s character is a play on the manic-pixie type: She works in a bookstore and does whimsical things like claim her name is “Tape Recorder” (actually, it’s Liz) and force Louie to try on a gold lamé dress. But she soon proves far more complicated. A bartender quietly cuts her off before her first drink, reminding her about what happened “the last time.” Later, she forces Louie to climb endless flights of stairs to reach a rooftop view of the city. “I don’t want to jump, so I’m not afraid. I would never do that,” she says, perched on a ledge. “I’m having too good of a time.” But then her face clouds over, and the moment darkens.

Posey has described “Louie” as “independent film meets television.” These days, independent film might be a somewhat shapeless category, but Posey has managed to keep some semblance of the original indie spirit alive: realism with a whiff of strangeness, the push to expose the dark underbelly of everyday life. And so one can only imagine what she will bring to “New Girl,” in which Deschanel’s character is pure pixie dream minus the manic, a cotton candy heroine in a flouncy dress. In the September premiere, Posey is set to play a “shot girl” at a party, which sounds like just the right venue for her brand of tightly-wound screwball with visible demons. In any event, it will be interesting to see two generations of indie queen meet onscreen at last.

Laura Bennett is a staff writer at The New Republic.